On August 16, 2012, the Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) and the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) hosted a workshop in São Paulo, Brazil to present the results of a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) entitled “Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX)” for the Latin American and Caribbean region. Jointly sponsored by Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Climate and Pollution Agency, CDKN, and the IPCC, the workshop focused on disseminating the results and lessons of the IPCC’s special report, including the expected impacts of extreme climate events and disasters and different options for managing risk in the region.
For many participants, the news that climate change is expected to lead to more frequent and intense extreme climate events, including heat waves, floods, and droughts was not particularly novel. However, the report’s conclusions and the meeting’s discussions about the key role that human development factors play in determining risks and the impacts of such extreme events drew fresh interest and concern. The report’s authors noted that if and where future extreme climate events cause disasters will depend less on Mother Nature and more on a dynamic mix of economic, social, cultural, and governance factors, such as household income and livelihoods, institutions, popular education, urban planning and development patterns, and community organization. It became clear in this meeting that changing our mindset about “natural disasters” will be part of society’s path towards embracing climate change adaptation. As Vicente Barros, a researcher from the University of Buenos Aires and co-chair of working group which authored the study, argued, “Disasters are not ‘natural’, but rather they are the interaction of natural climate or meteorological events with vulnerability and exposure of society or human groups.”
The disproportionate impact of extreme climate in developing countries underscores Barros’ observation. Between 1970 and 2008, 95% of disasters caused by extreme climate events occurred in developing countries and only 5% in developed countries. With this in mind, one academic at the meeting concluded that the most effective way to increase the resilience of local populations to extreme climate events is to improve the conditions for socioeconomic development. It was difficult not be impressed by the urgent need to understand how to effectively mainstream climate-compatible development in these countries, and this message confirmed the relevance of CDKN’s efforts to increase the resilience of vulnerable populations in developing countries. Despite the crucial role that social, economic, and cultural factors play in climate related disasters, the meeting also drew attention to the particular lack of social science research on these issues. A number of the experts in physical sciences at the meeting recognized that research efforts in the social sciences must be bolstered to meet this challenge.
Given the setting of the meeting, the discussion of the report and its implications was frequently put in the context of Brazil’s climate scenarios, its recent experience with extreme climate events and disasters (like the heavy rains and landslides in Rio de Janeiro in early 2011), and the specific challenges it faces in its regions and cities. Many of these issues were strikingly similar to those being addressed in other parts of Central and South America, such as Cartagena, Quito, and El Salvador. For example, the predicted rise of daily temperatures in cities like Salvador de Bahia and Cartagena is expected to threaten urban infrastructure and lead to increased mortality rates from diseases. The report and many of these specific adaptation issues will undoubtedly provide grist for the development of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report due in 2014. In the meantime, this meeting highlighted the immediate opportunities and imperative for countries in the region and around the globe to redouble research efforts (especially in the social sciences) and share experiences, lessons, and innovations on adaptation strategies and disaster prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.